At the start of 1862, Abraham Lincoln’s team of rivals was due for a change. Secretary of War Simon Cameron resigned and was replaced by Edwin Stanton. On Jan. 15, 1862, Stanton was confirmed by Congress as Secretary of War. Prior to his confirmation, Stanton served as a legal advisor to Cameron.
Cameron’s selection as Lincoln’s first Secretary of War was more from cronyism than overwhelming qualifications. Cameron was a former Whig, Democrat who switched to the Republican Party. In 1860, Cameron was nominated for president but threw his support to Lincoln. As payback for his support, Cameron was named Lincoln’s Secretary of War.
By 1862, Cameron was forced to resign due to allegations of corruption. When discussing Cameron’s integrity, Thaddeus Stevens, a Pennsylvania congressman, told Lincoln that, “I don’t think that he would steal a red-hot stove.” When he heard Stevens comment, Cameron demanded a retraction from the Pennsylvanian.
Stevens did recant in his own special way saying he would “take back” his assertion that Cameron would not “steal a red-hot stove.” Upon his resignation, Lincoln made Cameron the U. S. Minister to Russia, placing him as far away from the Civil War as possible.
Stanton had a reputation that wasn’t especially clean either. He was also known to have made statements critical of Lincoln and to be dishonest. Despite this, Lincoln was not afraid to appoint his political rivals in positions on his Cabinet.
Known for his keen legal mind, Stanton, in 1859, made one of the first “insanity defense” pleas for Daniel Sickles who was tried for the murder of his wife’s lover, Phillip Barton Key II. Key was the son of Francis Scott Key, author of the Star Spangled Banner. Sickles was found not guilty and later served as a general in the Army of the Potomac. Stanton also served as Attorney General for President James Buchanan.
Stanton agreed to serve as Lincoln’s Secretary of War to “help save the country.” Stanton was strongly opposed to secession of the southern states and advocated arming former slaves to fight the Confederate army.
While Stanton proved to be an effective Secretary of War, he was known to question the loyalty of generals suspected of having southern sympathies. Stanton made sure any general sitting on a court martial board would vote conviction of the accused. If they refused to do so, their career advancement quickly stalled. There were few generals in the Union army willing to cross Stanton.
In August 1862, Stanton issued an order to “arrest and imprison any person or persons who may be engaged, by act, speech or writing, in discouraging volunteer enlistments, or in any way giving aid and comfort to the enemy, or in any other disloyal practice against the United States.”
While Stanton could be abrasive, Lincoln respected the effort given by his Secretary of War saying, “He is the rock on the beach of our national ocean against which the breakers dash and roar, dash and roar without ceasing. He fights back the angry waters and prevents them from undermining and overwhelming the land. Gentlemen, I do not see how he survives, why he is not crushed and torn to pieces. Without him I should be destroyed.”
On Apr. 15, 1865, Stanton stood over a dying Lincoln, who had been shot by John Wilkes Booth. When Lincoln passed away, Stanton uttered, “Now, he belongs to the ages.” Stanton vigorously oversaw the apprehension and conviction of the Lincoln conspirators. The final eight conspirators were tried by a military tribunal instead of in civilian court. Stanton was later accused of tampering with the witnesses’ testimony.
Stanton remained Secretary of War but clashed often with President Andrew Johnson during Reconstruction. He opposed Johnson’s policies which Stanton deemed too lenient to the former Confederate States. Johnson attempted to remove Stanton as Secretary of War. Stanton maintained Johnson’s actions were a violation of the Tenure of Office Act. This led the House of Representatives to impeach the president. Johnson avoided impeachment by a single vote.